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[ Literature : Antiquity to Middle Ages: Recent Past ]


The material on this page is a brief overview of Japanese literature. The current page contains a very basic Japanese literature from its beginnings to the present. It doesn't cover indepth discourse of literature so that we necessarily provide relevant links for references

[timeline of Japanese literacy history]

Antiquity (to 794)

The oldest literary works are Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters, c.712) and Nihon Shoki (History Book of Ancient Japan, c.720). These works are the origins of the Japanese people and the formation of the state. While Nihon Shoki is written almost in Chinese, Kojiki is written in Japanese using Chinese characters. The great anthology known as Man'yoshu (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves, c.770) contains around 4,500 poems written by people from emperors to peasants. There are two main forms of poem in the anthology, long and short, of which the short form, or tanka, survives to this day. Tanka consist of five lines with 5-7-5-7-7 syllables.

Links [Kojiki, B.H. Chamberlain, translator 1882]
[Manyoshu, a poem by Kakinomoto Hitomoro] [ Tanka, Richard MacDonald]

Middle Antiquity (794-1180)

The fairy tale Taketori monogatari (The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter), written in the 9th century, is thought to be Japan's first novel. It is widely known today as Kaguya-hime (The Moon Princess) and is popular in children's picture books. It tells the tale of an old bamboo cutter who one day discovers a tiny child in a bamboo stem. He and his wife adopt her and the child grows into a beautiful woman in just a few months. She attracts many suitors, including the emperor but sets impossible tasks for them to win her hand. Finally Kaguya-hime declares that she will return to her home - the moon. The emperor sends thousands of troops to stop her but she eludes them and leaves only a letter behind. The emperor orders the letter burned on the highest mountain in the land. Miraculously, the the letter continues producing smoke and as a result the mountain became known as Fuji, "the immortal one".

Link [ Brief story of Taketori Monogatari, Kodan Sha]

Undoubtedly the earliest great work of fiction was Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji) written in 1010 by Murasaki Shikibu (left), a lady of the Heian court (modern day Kyoto). It is a massive 54-volume tome that tells of the romantic adventures of noblemen, centering around the prince Genji, who has gone down in Japanese folklore as their version of Casanova or Don Juan. It also provides a glimpse into the daily life of 10th and 11th-century courtiers, as does Makura-no-soshi (The Pillow Book) by Sei Shonagon
, another woman of the court. The literature of the Heian Period (794-1185) is characterized by mono-no-aware, or a feeling of being connected to nature and all things. This concept is still considered central to the Japanese psyche though it's not so easy to see in the Japanese of today.

Link [Story of Genji Monogoatari, by Eiichi Shibuya ] [ Makura-no-shoshi ]

The Tale of Heike ( Heike Monogatari)

The Tale of Heike is one of the war chronicles about Taira-Minamoto War between 1156 and 1185. The story is about a rise and fall of Taira family. Taira-Minamoto War is the most famous incident in Japan. A lot of stories were written about it, and they all were based to gThe Tale of Heikeh.It was recited by blind persons accompanying of the biwa that was one of the string instruments. They were called biwa minstrels. The story recounts in the context of the Buddhism philosophy of impermanence.

Taira-Minamoto War was an incident to build feudalism in Japan. Minamoto-no Yoritomo started Kamakura Shogunate Government in 1192. The government had been progressing of feudalism.
This is the chronicle that begins with the famous paragraph:

"The sound of the Gion Shôja bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sâla flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline. The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind."

Link [The Tale of Heike]


Middle Ages (1180-1600)

The political turbulence associated with the Gempei Wars of 1180 to 1185 and Yoritomo Minamoto established the Kamakura bakufu in 1192. The tale of Heike is a history of Taira family, the rise and the fall. It was recited by blind persons accompanying of the biwa( string instruments). The story recounts in the context of the Buddhism philosophy of impermanence.

Link []

Recent Past (1600-1867)

The Edo period was characterized by the growing cultural influence exercised by samurai and townspeople. The commercial class in particular benefited from various economic and technological developments, the result of which was a great flowering of culture in the Genroku period (1688-1704). The haikai master Matsuo Bashô, the novelist Ihara Saikaku, and the dramatist Chikamatsu Monzaemon are all associated with this enormous outburst of creative activity. The nation's cultural center shifted from the Kyoto-Osaka region to Edo in the second half of the eighteenth century, leading to the production of large quantities of gesaku (frivolous works) by the writers who constituted the last literary generation before the advent of Western influence.


Hagakure ("In the Shadow of Leaves"') is a sacret manual for the samurai classes consisting of a series of the philosophy and code of behavior--the Way to become a true warrior. It is a collection of thoughts by Tuneasa Yamamoto (1659~1719), resigned warrior of Saga Nabeshima and sayings recorded over a period of seven years by Tashiro (1678~1748). The work represents an attitude of Bushido that is a Way of Dying. It later came to be recognized as a classic exposition of samurai thought and came to influence many subsequent generations such as Yukio Mishima.

Ihara Saikaku (1642-1693)

Saikaku Ihara is a poet and writer of popular fiction. Saikaku was born in Osaka. At the age of 40, he published his first work of prose fiction, KOSHOKU ICHIDAI OTOKO( 1682; tr The Life of an Amorous Man. Saikaku describes Japanese love scenes of all kinds with a frankness that has made him a favorite with expurgators, but he touches the subject of both normal and abnormal love with tenderness.

Link [ Ihara Saikaku ]

Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725 ), whose real name was Sugimori Nobumori, was born in Nagato Province. He was at first a monk, then returned to secular life and established himself at Osaka. Starting at around age 30, he would become one of Japan's most prolific and beloved playwrights, composing as many as 160 plays for the Kabuki and Bunraku (puppet) theatres. Many of his pieces were historically based and as many were on contemporary subjects that appealed to the common people. One of his favored devices was the tragic love between either a samurai or a townsman and a courtesan. In most of his plays, he presented a moral dillemna. His most famous work was Chushingura, the story of the 47 Roshi. It may be that part of his ability came from the demands of writing for the Bunraku - he once commented that writing for that stage required him to make his dialogue as compelling and vivid as possible, given that, after all, the audience was looking at simple puppets.


Perhaps as the distilled essence of poetry, haiku are 17-syllable poems whose development was strongly influenced by the Zen Buddhism. Though the current 5-7-5 syllable structure and mandatory use of a kigo ( a word to represent the season) were only introduced later in the Meiji period (1868-1912), the greatest exponent of haiku lived in the Edo period.

Basho Matsuo (1644-94) was a Zen lay priest and his haiku often form part of travel journals and were written on the road, capturing his mood and surroundings in various parts of the country.Mastuo Basho The best known work is Oku no Hosomichi (Narrow Road Through the Deep North - it is available in the English translation Narrow Road to Oku by famous Japan scholar Donald Keene). It tells of Basho's almost 1,500 mile pilgramage with his disciple Sora from Edo to northern Japan, undertaken when he was 48 and shortly before his death.The two other great haiku poets of this period were Yosa Buson, a painter and Kobayashi Issa, a peasant villager.

The shortest poetic form in the world, haiku work better in Japanese than in English and translations are particularly difficult. Anyway, here are some translations of haiku by Basho from Oku no Hosomichi.

Link [ History of Haiku and Basho Matsuo ]


Ernest Sir Satow (1843-1929)

Ernest Satow came to Japan in 1862 as a translator for the British Embassy at the age of 19. He was actively involved in communication with influential Japanese politicians during the last days of the Tokugawa government. Mr. Satow was not only a prominent diplomat but was also a great scholar of Japanese culture. He wrote a book called "A Diplomat in Japan: The Inner History of the Critical Years in the Evolution of Japan". It provides a firsthand account of events between 1862 and 1869 from the perspective of a foreigner, which covers the very important period of Japan opening to foreigners and the overturn of the shogunate. Sir Ernest Satow was witness to the important events that formed modern Japan. The book makes history come alive and fills it with real-life people.